By James Schuelke, Director of Engagement & Advocacy
Rural America is the nation’s backbone. In every state, small towns like the one I called home in Idaho are strengthening our nation’s civic and economic fabric. But like too many Americans, hardworking folks from these communities are hurting. Jobs are leaving and wages are stagnant, causing many young people to move away. That’s not just bad for our families, it’s bad for local economies and the nation. So, what can we do?
Fortunately, there’s a hopeful story emerging in America’s rural communities. In many towns across the nation, local leaders are delivering free education to their students at community and technical colleges. They understand that a high school education is no longer enough to guarantee a decent quality of life and that hardworking Americans shouldn’t have to take on crippling student debt simply to get ahead. Leaders in rural areas know that families are more likely to remain local when they can find jobs, and businesses are attracted to communities with skilled workers. That’s why free community and technical college is a win for everyone—it expands opportunity for students, families, and local economies.
For many rural Americans, two-year campuses like the one I attended are the only option for higher education and the skills needed to get a better job. “When the farm goes under, or the coal mine closes, or an industry goes overseas, community colleges are often the only place students in remote regions can go,” shares Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance. Check out just a few of these rural communities investing in their students through free education:
Last year, I traveled to the launch of the Gateway Promise in Racine, Wisconsin. This program helps high school graduates get off on the right foot—providing counseling, vocational workshops, and free tuition. In this rustbelt community, Gateway Promise is funded by local businesses looking to build a brighter future by training the next generation of workers. At the launch, Kelly Semrau of SC Johnson, a corporate donor to the program, told students, “This community wants you to stay here because we have jobs for you.” The former Reagan Administration official added, “I just left a business meeting and there are many employers who are looking for students to get through Gateway. There are family-supporting wages when you get through Gateway.” This program empowers students to move into good-paying jobs and strengthen their communities without taking on heavy debt.
Of course it isn’t just the next generation that’s experiencing economic hardship, which is why the VanGuarantee Scholarship is delivering a free community college education to adults as well. In fact, most community college students aren’t even recent high school graduates—on average they are 29-years-old. Moreover, in the next decade six out of every ten jobs will require some level of education or training beyond high school. That’s why Vance-Granville Community College administers this program to educate adults looking to compete for today’s jobs. “We do not want the cost of attendance to be a barrier for any student at any stage,” says the school’s president, Dr. Stelfanie Williams. “We want to guarantee that every student in our community who wants to earn a college degree can do so.” These skilled graduates will help attract and support businesses, building a stronger local economy.
It’s not all sand and palm trees in California. A few hundred miles from Los Angeles, the state’s Central Valley is an agricultural giant, providing produce around the globe. The Central Valley is one of the state’s fastest growing and most diverse regions, yet it possesses one of the nation’s highest rates of residents living below the poverty line. These conditions inspired education and business leaders to build the Central Valley Promise, which provides a semester of free community college to high school graduates with the option of transferring to Fresno State University. This partnership is key since “kids who transfer from community college to Fresno State tend to graduate at much higher rates than kids who start right out of high school,” says the university’s dean of research and graduate studies, Dr. James Marshall. Thanks to the collaboration of these community leaders, students can now pursue a better life in the Central Valley.
These programs aren’t alone. Not by a long shot. Throughout the country, more and more rural communities are investing in free community and technical college. In towns like Lynchburg, Virginia; San Luis Obispo, California; and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, leaders are enabling a better quality of life by supporting a free community college education. These efforts help to create jobs, improve family finances, and develop stronger economies. They are producing a highly skilled workforce, delivering talented graduates to local businesses, and building thriving communities. Free community and technical college revitalizes our rural communities and builds a stronger America. Spread the word by pledging your support today!